MIT Serves Up a Crash Course In Heavy Metal

At 'Bang Your Head! Heavy Metal 101,' earplugs are encouraged.

Harvard has courses focusing on the integral role that hip-hop plays in the community setting, but MIT has students banging their heads.

Hailed for its technological inventions and smarter-than-average student body, most people don’t necessarily associate MIT with long-haired vocalists, ear-shattering power chords, and sweaty mosh pits that make up much of heavy metal culture. But every year for nearly the last decade, Jeff Pearlin, a systems administrator at the school, has been teaching courses that delve into the roots of the culture and its subgenres to metal heads and non-fans alike.

“It’s for the uninitiated and for anyone that has never been exposed to it,” said Pearlin. “[Metal] is not just a form of music—there is a whole subculture and counter culture, and you get into the iconography, and the heavy metal look, and the concert circuit, too.”

Pearlin’s course is part of MIT’s Independent Activities Period, or IAP, an after-hours lecture series that lets students, faculty, staff, and alums organize course topics and impart their wisdom on attendees at no extra cost. “It’s a chance for people to sort of decompress, and anyone with expertise in something can teach something,” he said. In the course description for “Bang Your Head! Heavy Metal 101,” Pearlin notes some topics up for discussion, such as “why Judas Priest rules; why Metallica used to; and why [Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister] is God.”

Pearlin started his course in 2006, and much like previous classes he’s taught, he spent this semester looking at one of the first truly-metal bands that helped spark a worldwide phenomenon of similar-sounding music production: Black Sabbath.

A band that is still clearly relevant to the scene—Sabbath took home a Grammy Sunday night for “best metal performance” for their single, “God Is Dead”—the group, led by was at the epicenter of a large movement very early on. “I have been looking at Heavy Metal’s ‘Big Bang,’” said Pearlin. “For many people, and for me, it comes from Black Sabbath. Where did they come from? They didn’t just come from a vacuum.”

From Sabbath spawns what Pearlin calls a “whole linear development” where other bands are typically motivated by their predecessors, but as the years progressed, groups started to fork off of the original sound and became more inventive and creative with the types of influences they would blend into their music.

His month-long “crash course” covers the basic history of the music scene, how it transitioned over the years, and how to identify and differentiate heavy metal from rock music, and “Thrash metal” from “Death metal.”

Pearlin uses sound clips, music videos, and visual representations—photos of hair-metal bands, or the classic black clothing and extravagant on-stage props often associated with many groups—as explainers for first-timers and refreshers for returning students.

“Half of the class is learning about something that they have always loved while others are learning for the first time. It’s designed for the latter half. It’s meant for me to try and translate for people that don’t know about the culture, what it’s about. But even people who are diehards say, ‘this is great, I’ve never thought of it this way,’” said Pearlin. “It’s such an extreme expression that it’s not going to speak for everyone, and it’s not for everyone. But for those that it does speak to, it works for them.”

On January 30, Pearlin will close the book on his eighth consecutive metal series, but he still serves as a resident expert in some capacity on the school’s campus.

During regular courses over the years, Pearlin has been invited to step into the classroom to help connect certain subjects with the thriving metal music industry, and has offered up opinions and lessons on metal’s relation and links to certain literature, like Moby Dick and a band called Mastodon, as well as how heavy metal has served as a microcosm for globalization.

“It’s easy for me to talk to other people about it understanding they have no experience in it, or even no interest in it,” said Pearlin. “It’s a labor of love.”